New York – Halachic Analysis: Celebrating Birthdays


    New York – Last week was either Presidents’ Week, or Washington’s Birthday or Lincoln’s Birthday, or some sort of combination.

    Rav Chaim Kanivsky Shlita was once asked an interesting question (Derech Sicha p, 174): Should a woman delay her surgery so that it can be done on her birthday?

    Where was this question coming from? Some people are of the opinion that noticing and or celebrating birthdays is not a particularly Jewish action. They note that the only mention we find of birthdays is in regard to the evil Pharoah. While there are certainly opinions that held this, in this essay, it will be suggested that this is not necessarily the case and that, noting someone’s birthday may very well be a Jewish thing to do.

    So where do we begin? We must first realize that there exists a Mitzvah of V’ahavta l’rayacha Kamocha, loving others as we do ourselves. It is always important to make these others realize that we care about them individually and that we genuinely value who they are. It should not be perfunctory, but real. What better way to do this than a birthday?

    And now onward to the sources. The Gemorah in Moed Kotton 28a records that Rav Yoseph made a party on the occasion of his 60th birthday. This was because he had avoided the punishment of Kares. It is unclear, however, if this can serve as a paradigm for other birthday parties or just for a 60th.

    However, the Midrash Saichel Tov (Bereishis 40:20) notes that “most people celebrate that day that they were born and are joyous during this time and hold a party. The Yerushalmi (Rosh HaShana 3:8) tells us that a person does not quickly fall on his “Yom Ginusiyah.” Rashi in Bereishis (4:20) explains that Pharoah’s birthday is called Yom Ginusiyah. This Yerushalmi indicates that a birthday is a special day, not just for recognition, but it seems to be an auspicious time to avoid harm. Rav Tzadok (Rsisei Laila Divrei Chalomos-20) writes this explicitly. The Ben Ish Chai states that some have the custom to make the birthday a kind of “yom Tov” and a Siman Tov – then he adds, “and so we conduct ourselves in our home.”

    Yes, the Ben Ish Chai had birthday parties.

    Nor was he the only one. The Ksav Sofer writes in his response (Yore Deah Vol. II #148) that he held a fiftieth birthday party. He writes that he made a special siyum on the tractate Psachim for the occasion. He states there that his father, the Chsam Sopher did the same thing – he made a siyum on Chumash with his students on the occasion of his birthday on the 7th of Tishrei – and he gave out coins so they can purchase lachmei chalav (an early prototype of the now ever popular cupcake). The Chsam Sopher’s own Rebbe Rav Natan Adler (See Igros Sofrim p. 83) held a birthday party for his mother on her 80th birthday and invited the whole town!

    It says in the biography of the Chofetz Chaim that he held a birthday party on his 90th (or 80th) birthday on 11 Shvat 5688 and finished his manuscript entitled, “Beis Yisroel” for the occasion. In 1909, on the afternoon of Rosh Chodesh Shvat, on the occasion of Rav Shmuel Salant’s 93rd birthday a party was held at his house right after Chatzos with greetings, celebration and a cake. Virtually all of Yerushalayim was in attendance including the staff of the Bikur Cholim hospital, the Chevra Kadisha and the BaDatz of Yerushalayim. The event was reported in the February edition of Chavatzelet p. 235.

    In the HaMaayan (Tammuz 5731) the ethical will of Rav Yisroel Lipshitz (1782-1860, the author of the Tiferes Yisroel commentary on the Mishna and the Rav of Danzig, is cited where he tells each member of his family that on the occasion of their birthdays all the siblings should send birthday greetings of Mazal Tov! He also writes that this custom should not be negated, only if there is absolute emergency.

    Another issue is the intent, the Kavana, of the birthday party and of the greeting. The intent should be one of Hakaras HaTov to Hashem – thanking Hashem for yet another year of existence. Let’s not foget that Hakaras HaTov is one of the fundamentals of the Torah way of life. Why was Adam HaRishon punished during his short sojourn in the Garden of Eden? Contrary to popular thought – It was not because he ate of the Eitz HaDaas – the forbidden fruit. Rather, it was his lack of Hakaras HaTov, being someone who expresses gratitude. How so? He responded to Hashem, “The woman that You gave me, forced me to eat of the fruit..” It was for the lack of appreciation for the gift that was Chava that caused the decline of mankind. Celebrating the birthday out of a sense of Hakaras HaTov would involve very lofty thoughts of Hakaras HaTov – a moral pre-requisite for all the Mitzvos in the Torah.

    It is true, however, that the Munkatcher Rebbe (Divrei Torah 5:88) and others too, expressed the view that birthdays are a foreign thing and have no precedent in Judaism. The Munkatcher Rebbe writes that the reason is because of the notion that, “it is better for a person not to have been born in this world, but now that he is born he should do his duties and serve Hashem..” Therefore, he concludes, we should not be celebrating birthdays. If we can rely on the Derech Sicha who cites Rav Chaim Kaniefsky on this issue as well, he was of the opinion that birthdays should not be celebrated either – against our citations from the Chsam Sofer, the Ksav Sofer, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Shmuel Salant.

    What then do we do with all the above sources? There is a Tosfos HaRosh that qualifies this thought (Eiruvin 13b) of “better for a person not to have been born” that it refers only to people whose ways have not been determined that they are destined to perform and do good. So for evil people a birthday party would be wrong, for regular people who are more good than bad it is the right and proper thing to do.

    It seems to this author that there exists an argument between the Tosfos HaRosh and the Tosfos in regard to how to resolve the following apparent contradiction: The Gemorah in Avodah Zarah states, “Let us give thanks to our forefathers for if they did not sin we would never have arrived in this world!” Yet the Gemorah in Eiruvin states, better for a person not to have been born.” Tosfos seems to resolve it by stating that the Gemorah in Avodah Zarah refers only to the Tzadikkim. Tosfos HaRosh seems to learn that the Gemorah in Eiruvin refers only to those who have not chosen the path of good. The difference between them lies in the regular, average person.

    It seems to this author that those authorities who advocated celebrating birthdays in general would hold like the Tosfos HaRosh, while those who were against it would hold like Tosfos in resolving the contradiction.

    The author can be reached at [email protected]

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    1. After reading this excellent analysis of relevant halacha and meforshim from rav Hoffman, I don’t think anyone should rush out and cancel their bookings with Uncle Schloime for entertainment at their yinglach’s birthday parties. I’m not sure its somthing most frum adults do for themselves and family anyway but clearly there is no harm in a low key birthday party for children which includes some nice yiddeshe entertainment and snacks with good hashgacha.

    2. on the Passuk Tov Sem Meshemen Tov Vyomm Hamoves Myom Hivaldo that because of this Passuk it is not a Jewish custom to celebrate Birthdays but rather to Mark Yaartzeit instead. Eyin sham.

    3. Thank you Rabbi Hoffman for this wonderful piece. This clarifies the issue for those ignorant people that spewed their hatred (to me personally) by mocking the Lubavitcher Rebbe obm when he encouraged people to celebrate their birthdays, and to use it as a time to make hachlatos tovos and learn extra Torah.

      • “Do we not celebrate Bar and Bas Mitzvahs? I never heard of ANY Jewish parent who thought they could get away without giving their child a birthday present.”

        Wow! Really?! This is news to me! I’ve never heard of Jews being *against* celebrating a birthday, or having a small party or gathering for a child, when he\she turns a certain special age! (:-/

        My daughter is turning 5yrs old next month & I’m planning her a party at the same place where her & her brother do gymnastics. Now I’m not Jewish, so I’m not bound by Jewish Law, but our family does like to try to go sort of “above & beyond”, if we feel compelled to do so, because of certain scriptures or opinions of great Rabbis, etc., that prove to us we should probably behave other than we behaved or did, before. Try to strive towards holiness & be as righteous as an average gentile can be. (But hopefully even *more* – lol)

        Anyway… is this an issue that we should look into???

        Is it a problem to let a kid have a small party, (probably 5-8 kids, not counting family, as she will only be 5yrs old & Autistic), and to give her presents, a cake, 2 let her have fun on the big trampoline, do somersaults w\all the other kids, etc?

    4. The Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged people to celebrate their birthday by : evaluating the past year and planning for the future, taking on a new mitzvah/chumra/ emphasis on a mitzvah, giving tzedoko, learning, saying tehilim, thanking Hashem for life.

    5. We say in Tehilim (kapitel bais) b’ni-my son, hoyoim yiladitichu-I created u today (it’s your birthday), shial mimeni- pray and ask whatever you need, v’etnu-and I’ll give it to you. In other words the day of your birthday is a day that you can ask what ever you want.

    6. In the Rihzin hasidic courts the chasidim would also make an issue of their Rebbe’s birthday. The old Boyan people of the lower east side kloiz would make something every year.

      There are that celebrate the day of their Bris.

      Has anyone heard of ‘birthday spanks’? You would get on your birthday equal to the year you are entering.

    7. Some more not mentioned here…

      כפי שמספרים חז”ל, המן שמח להפיל את גזרת ההשמדה בחודש אדר, כי ביום ז’ בו נפטר משה רבינו – והוא לא ידע שביום זה משה גם נולד, וכי זכותה של ההולדת תהפוך את מזלם של ישראל לטובה

      Also talmud yerushalmi says
      – ביום ההולדת מזלו של האדם גובר

      Also tzadikim said from tehilim
      בני אני היום ילדתיך שאל ממני ואתנה…” יש כאן רמז שביום ההולדת יש סגולה מיוחד שמשאלותיך יתמלאו.
      That u can ask and u will be given be”h…

    8. I skimmed through your article and I didn’t see the greatest godol batora in recent times the Lubavitcher Rebbe mentioned once.
      The Lubavitcher Rebbe was of the opinion of celebrating ones birthday. A birthday is like a personal Rosh Hashono, a day which we look back at our past years actions and improve that which can be improved, a day which we take on a good resolution etc.
      We find by purim that homon ym”s wanted to destroy the jews in the month of adar because it was in that month that Moshe Rabeinu was nistalek, but he didn’t realise that also in that month Moshe Rabeinu A”H was born. which it is in that honer that we were all saved, So to now may we all be saved from those that wish and try to destroy us.

    9. Thank you very much for this very interesting article, which is very unknown and hardly ever discussed anywhere. I was actually brought up that although we had Birthday Parties as young children, my father would always tell us, “Only Paroh had birthday parties!”. and Re; #9: Willow Tree: “Has anyone heard of ‘birthday spanks’? You would get on your birthday equal to the year you are entering.”
      Yes we got (soft and friendly pats) spanks from our late Grandmother O”H (a wise Chasidic woman from Galicia Poland), according to our age, plus a Bar of Chocolate!
      I also would like to point out a interesting point, that on the illustration picture here, there is Birthday Candles. A friend of mine once asked a big Choshiva Poisek/Rov if its ok to have candles on a Birthday cake, and the Rov said, No you shouldn’t as its Chikas Hagoy! I’m not sure in Halacha, exactly how forbidden it is, but I know for example its a well known thing, that you don’t blow out candles, if you have to extinguish them, rather use a different method, and the idea and the chikas hagoy of the birthday candles is, to blow them out, so its surely not a Yiddishe Minhag.
      Thanks again to Rav Hoffman and VIN, Keep it up!

    10. from the new edition of the Reb Moshe book, p. 311

      “All the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were called by Reb Moshe and the Rebbetzin on their birthdays. The family would reciprocate by calling Reb Moshe every 7 Adar to wish him well on his birthday. Those who lived in the NY area would come to the Lower East Side to do this in person. This was so accepted a practice in the Feinstein family that when one grandchild was once unable to get through on the phone, she received a call that night from Reb Moshe, who was concerned that something was amiss.

      “The family emphasizes, however, that these were not simply “Happy Birthday” calls, but opportunities for them to express their fervent hopes and blessings that their father and grandfather merit another year of life in good health, and receive his blessing in return.’

      footnote: for a number of years, a group of students from Yeshiva of Staten Island would travel to the East Side on 7 Adar to present R’ Moshe with a loose-leaf containing chidushei Torah written by the yeshiva’s talmidim. R’ Moshe would glowingly accept this unique gift and leaf through the entire collection in the presence of the talmidim.

    11. The Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav, Siman 444:9 cites a Chavos Yair that one should make a feast (and say SheHechiyanu) upon reaching the age of 70, which is a complete lifetime, and considers this a Seudas Mitzvah.

      There is a Medrash about Amalek sending men whose birthday it was to battle because their mazal is gover.

      2 years ago there was this news item: “In the presence of family members and a small number of close friends and associates, HaRav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv on Monday night is marking his 100th birthday in a modest event held in his Meah Shearim home.”

    12. It is true that the ben ish chai mentiones importance of one’s birthday, but he also said its more important to celebrate one BRIS day. I.e. the eighth day after your birthday, every year.


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